NEW YORK — Part of a performer's job is putting asses in seats, but when a gargantuan lineup of Britney Spears, Metallica, Beyoncé and 50 Cent can't keep a packed house fully populated for the duration of a televised show, organizers turn to the only surefire solution: seat fillers.
On Thursday I was one of them, at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards (see "Madonna Smooches With Britney And Christina; Justin, Coldplay Win Big At VMAs").
"You're getting the best seats in the house — ones that go for anywhere between $400 to $1,000," said Jackie Stathis, who runs the Web site Seatfiller.com. "You also get to dress up and you might get caught on TV. How else can the average person get that close to a celebrity?"
Only Chester Bennington's bandmates had a better vantage point to witness the Linkin Park singer plant a wet one on his date just after kicking me out of the band's reserved spots. Too bad security wasn't sitting where I was, or else they could've busted a pair of giggly presenters smuggling drinks back to their seats.
Not many people can say they've sat within spitting distance of excited millionaire Donald Trump during a performance by Christina Aguilera. And in case you're thinking about trying anything funny, 50 Cent's bodyguards, one of whose biceps is the size of a grown man's head, are even more enormous when they're close enough to effortlessly pick you up and toss you.
Although seat fillers are usually confined to the first few rows so that a camera's view of the audience doesn't show any empty seats, sometimes just being anywhere in the house offers an otherwise inaccessible view. As Justin Timberlake accepted his Moonman for Best Dance Video, one excited "fan gone wild" on the second mezzanine flashed him, then flipped off anyone around her who objected to her spring-break display. She capped off her performance by offering Timberlake a view of her white-thonged bum.
Before a seat filler can reap the benefits of being embedded with the famous, however, they must endure the excruciating training camp.
After applying months in advance for a seat-filler position through the Seatfiller.com site, which serves to staff the VMAs and events like the Grammys and the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, candidates are notified of their acceptance just a few days before the show.
For the VMAs we were instructed to assemble on the third floor of the Women's National Republican Club, across the street from Radio City Music Hall, four and a half hours before showtime. I arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule to find a line that wrapped around the block. Two hundred spots needed to be filled, and the line looked like it contained at least twice that many.
Once inside, we were corralled in a room with nothing to do except wait and munch a slice of the 150 lukewarm pizzas on hand. The fillers, aged 18-24, looked as though they were trying out to be extras in a music video. Slinky black cocktail dresses and high heels mingled with guys in collared shirts. A few people resembled celebrities. There's Alicia Keys sitting alone in the corner. Like a Virgin-era Madonna is giving her phone number to a guy who's yet to remove his sunglasses. There go three Strokes.
In the first hour the mercury rose about 10 degrees, and the breeze from the single air vent didn't travel very far in the humidity. Pizza-greased paper plates used as fans offered the only relief. Makeup ran and sweat stained silk shirts. Some people smelled ripe.
Relief came nearly an hour before the big show was about to start. We were ushered into the last few rows of Radio City Music Hall to wait for fabulous people to arrive and then leave again (or never show up in the first place) so we could rub elbows with them, if only until the next commercial break.
Seatfiller.com's Stathis said she received about 2,000 applications for the 200 open slots. Requirements depend on the event. The VMAs called for people 18-24, while the next event, September 30's "Women Who Rock: Girls With Guitars," pushes the limit to 40.
Besides the age and dress-code requirements, Stathis said the most important rule is knowing how to follow them. Autograph-hungry obsessives need not apply, and if you arrive even one minute late for the check-in, you may not get in.
"If you're unable to follow these simple rules, you can't be trusted," she said. "And when that happens, you could cause an even greater mess than showing an empty seat on TV."
Catch all the sizzlin', star-packed VMA action direct from Miami on August 28. MTV News' preshow kicks things off at 6:00 p.m. ET/PT, followed by the big show at 8 p.m.